Afrobeats is slowly but surely starting to gain ground in American music markets with Burna Boy as the poster boy.
It’s July 2019, Burna Boy flew into Lagos for a listening party. The subject was African Giant, his seventh studio project. He was all smiles, calm and collected. Whenever he smiled, it was full and with teeth.
The smiles were of contentment and genuine happiness. Dressed in all-black, he was even joined by his grandmother. Word was that a night before, he had just performed a stop on his African Giant Tour.
Oh naaaaaaaaa 🦍
– 🎥 @cordelljay
He was not only winning professionally, his personal life was popping – his girlfriend is British rapper, Stefflon Don. She wasn’t there on the night, but her spirit hovered above the room, whispering his lovely tunes. Her essence was felt on her man and his heart gushed with joy. A few months later, he held his birthday in Lagos.
On November 20, 2019, he got the biggest news yet. He was nominated for a Grammy Award. The category; Best World Music Album for the same album, African Giant. He represents the current focal point of afrobeats and the waves are with him.
This one is for the continent 🦍 #AFRICANGIANT
This writer thinks he might win the award. The west needs an African act to truly cross-over. The branding has ensued and what better validation do you need for an ‘alien act’ on American soil than a Grammy? As his Coachella performance suggests, Burna Boy isn’t huge in America.
For these purely capitalist reasons, odds are Burna Boy will win it. If he does, we won’t care. All that matters is that he won it. Asides that, African Giant is a beautiful sonic experience and near-peerless music. Anywhere you walk in the world, the mention of Nigeria might get you asked a random ‘Burna Boy’ question.
But to every story, there is a start. While this article got inspired by PR Consultant, Ogaga Sakpaide, the story itself started in 2011.
Burna Boy performs at Coachelle wearing Kenneth Ize [Credit: Twitter/ Coachella]
2011 & 2012: Part 1
It’s 2011 and the west is deep into an obsession with flash mobs and yet another era of K-Pop obsession.
PSY – GANGNAM STYLE(강남스타일) M/V
Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is on its way to become a global phenomenon that inspired flash mobs and permeated dance floors with effortlessness. This also coincided with the dawn of the internet – the world’s primary tool for communication. Social media was bridging gaps and made it easier to track behavioural patterns and trends beyond borders.
On the flash mob trend, ‘Harlem Shake’ by Bauer was a Billboard No. 1 single and so was ‘Party Rock Anthem’ by LMFAO. Step Up: Revolution, the fifth movie in the franchise was also heavily influenced by flash mob. But there was a problem, flash mobs were only going to last for so long. Western labels and capitalists needed a new cross-over sound.
Tokyo Drift – Teriyaki Boyz [ MUSIC VIDEO ] HD
After 2006 Teriyaki Boys and their Pharell Williams-produced ‘Tokyo Drift,’ K-Pop and Psy didn’t really crossed over at a second chance. Then, the west gave the chance to a genre that can be best described as ‘Easter European Dance Music.’ It came by way of huge success in France, the UK and across Europe.
It had also permeated parts of Netherlands. It is heavily influenced by Eurodance and EDM. Its poster children include Inna, Alexandra Stan, Vikay Jigulina and so forth. In fact, ‘Sun Is Up’ by Inna and ‘Mr. Saxobeat’ by Alexandra Stan became Top 40 Billboard hits. But sadly, it was hard to push them into acceptance.
ALEXANDRA STAN – Mr. Saxobeat
What that sound birthed was a rebirth of American pop in a different sound. Producers like Redone became stars. Hits like ‘On The Floor’ by Jennifer Lopez, ‘Give Me Everything’ by Pitbull, ‘Tonight’ by Enrique Iglesias and so forth came off that sounds. Pitbull and Afrojack became stars.
By 2013, the wave had passed and western labels needed a new obsession. In the 80’s they pillaged Reggae, the 90’s and early 2000’s saw a rise to latin-pop. The same 2000’s also saw them pillage dancehall
Jennifer Lopez – On The Floor ft. Pitbull
By 2013, latin pop sounds and dancehall never really died, but they weren’t making loads of money either. Even Sean Paul had become a pop star. The only place left to pillage was Africa.
Around this time, another Nigerian superstar was popping and his name was Wizkid. He had just released on debut album, Superstar and he was flying high. Everyone knew he was destined for greatness, but nobody knew how much. He was also named Next Rated Act at the 2011 Headies.
2012: Part II
Before this time, Nigerians had been featuring American and British acts, but they never really got any attention – it wasn’t time. But then, 2012 saw the release of ‘Oliver Twist’ by D’Banj. The song soared to No. 7 on the UK Top 40 – it was a miracle. It also got remixed by then-rapper-turned-serial-hitmaker, Pitbull.
D’banj – Oliver Twist (Official Video)
In D’Banj’s video, Kanye West appeared as a confirmation of the Nigerian superstar’s signing to G.O.O.D Music. The only problem was that D’Banj never really had the talent to truly make his mark – he was an entertainer who was aided by a super-producer, Don Jazzy.
He left Nigeria behind to chase his dreams. Who can blame him? He had conquered Africa. A while after that, he split from Jazzy and the show ended – he couldn’t crack it and he was in free fall. The chickens came back to roost and he lost on both fronts.
D’Banj feat Pitbull ,Sensato – Confesion (Oliver Twist remix) new hit 2013
In fact, he couldn’t even impress Western observers enough to truly back him – well, except Akon and his ‘deals.’ But something good happened, African immigrants and their children in the UK showed passion and ‘afrobeats’ started getting mooted as a generic name for a diverse range of sounds with African dance percussion.
Caribbean counterparts of first generation UK citizens then found a way to milk the sound and it birthed a sound that would be called afro-swing. Then, afro-fusion and so on saw daylight.
Wizkid – For Me feat Wande Coal (lyrics)
Off the back of his first major hit, ‘Dami Duro,’ Davido released his debut album, Omo Baba Olowo. The same year, Davido was also named Next Rated Act at the Headies.
In 2013, Burna Boy released his debut album, L.I.F.E. It had hits like ‘Like To Party’ and ‘Tonight.’ It also followed his 2010 mixtape. In the same year, Davido came back with hits like, ‘Aye’ and major collaborations with Runtown, Uhuru and Mafikizolo.
After a stellar two-year run during which he was untouchable, Wizkid slightly took a backseat to Davido. However, he still managed to plant incredible seeds with ‘Jaiye Jaiye’ and ‘On Top Of Your Matter.’ For his part, Burna Boy wasn’t even close to the level those two operated on at the time. He also lost Next Rated Act to Sean Tizzle at the Headies.
Wizkid had a relatively slower year. He was going to slow down at some point. But then, he released his sophomore album, Ayo. In 2019, many people think that album is a flop. However, it might just be his most impactful album.
That year and aged 21, Davido capped a stellar year with Artist of the Year at the 2014 MTV Africa Music Awards and Best International Act at the BET Awards.
WIZKID – OJUELEGBA
It’s 2015. On Ayo, Wizkid’s sophomore album is a song titled, ‘Ojuelegba.’ It was every bit an ‘afrobeat’ song as any. The guitars went with the lo-fi folk instrumentation and brilliant deliveries.
Alicia Keys was seen dancing to it. It also coincided with America’s Fela-obsession. Beyonce and Swizz Beatz had admitted to channeling him. Several broadway shows on abami eda’s life also got greenlit. With ‘Ojuelegba,’ white capitalists and label chiefs probably thought ‘Fela is back.’ They probably even saw dollar bills every time Wizkid sang.
Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz dance to Wizkid’s ‘Ojuelegba’
Then Skepta, who is a first-generation British-Nigerian was an opening act for Drake on his Jungle Tour. Off the back of Nothing Was The Same, Drake had seemingly given up on trying to get accepted by American Hip-Hop heads. Instead, he chose to become a mega-star.
Skepta played ‘Ojuelegba’ for the Canadian rapper who was on a fast-lane to become the biggest artist in the world. He liked it and rapped on the song. From there, Wizkid went nuclear. Some of the songs that Nigerians didn’t like from the Ayo album were fan-favourites on Wizkid’s tours of the UK. Even Sone Aluko tweeted about ‘In My Bed.’
In 2015, Burna Boy released his sophomore album, On A Spaceship. It had bright spots, but it just couldn’t truly make a mark. Burna Boy’s talent was always recognized, but distractions and controversies were affecting his focus. He made the conversation about everything else, but the music.
Burnaboy – Duro Ni Be [Official Video] ft. Phyno
That same year, Davido’s foray into America started. He recorded ‘Fans Mi,’ a trap song with Meek Mill.
It’s May 2016. Wizkid is riding on a high. He had just scored a global chart-topper titled, ‘One Dance.’ It spent more than 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Ghanaians tried to tell us that his part was passive, but we didn’t care. Starboy had a feature on a record-breaking song – that’s what matters.
He released a song titled, ‘Shabba’ featuring Chris Brown, French Montana and Trey Songz. It was a trap song that tried to blend in the ‘Shabba Ranks’ narrative. Asides how Wizkid hadn’t sufficient range, dynamism or the genuine sonic pallete to truly mark a trap beat, it was a trap beat – corny. The moment reeked of desperation to truly make a mark.
Who can blame him? He really didn’t want the ‘One Dance’ moment to pass him by. However, The song felt like one that would be made by an Atlanta has-been who just needs a December cheque. But even a has-been who would get a cheque for that song must have had an established fan base. The song was never going anywhere and it was never going to make any impact.
He had the talent, but anybody with a brain knew that the functionality of his talent was never going to get him over the line – if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Whoever was going to steal that crown had to give the west something it’s never had with a heavy brand and an infectious personality. Wizkid had been ghosting standards for a few years before 2016, he just got exposed.
WizKid – Come Closer ft. Drake (Official Video)
It was sad. At the time, I tweeted it, but I was dragged by Wizkid FC for days. The most reasonable of them thought he was laying the groundwork. They had a point, but groundwork can only be laid by someone with good work. For someone coming off the back of an 11-week global chart-topper in ‘One Dance,’ it was disappointing and slightly expected – for the sensible ones.
He kept working and might of western capitalism was with him. He went on media rounds and became a poster boy. Then, he released Sounds From The Other Side. The whole roll-out for the song reeked of fear – again, understandable. Now, it’s getting called ‘album,’ but back then, it was an “EP.”
Wizkid “Sounds From The Other Side”: Everyone Thinks It’s an Album, Except Starboy | Pulse TV News
Wizkid was too scared to call it an album and seemingly didn’t want to drain its seriousness by calling it a ‘mixtape.’ Some liked album – it transcended the Nigerian standard yet fell below it while also being destined to make no impact on the market he aimed at – America. It was too basic to truly make any impact.
It was like watching a washed American trapper try to make a comeback by trying to make music he deems appealing for a market.
More importantly, it wasn’t unique to that market. It charted in the Billboard 200 – obviously – but its impact was never going to do anything. Even his megastar Drake feature, ‘Come Closer’ couldn’t crack the Hot 100. It couldn’t even make the Bubbling Under or Heatseekers Charts. But then, it was also sad that he couldn’t crack it because he wanted it, but it was not going to happen.
He had the desire and work ethic, but just not the talent or vision. Nonetheless, he became a forerunner. His role was important to set the groundwork for future afrobeats stars. He didn’t tank or fail. He just had a role to play, but not as poster boy for too long.
WizKid – Sweet Love
That same year, Burna Boy hit a major problem called, Mr. 2Kay. For his conduct, he got blackballed and had to claw his way back. His EP, Redemption was also poorly received.
For his part, Davido launched his Western onslaught. Being an Atlanta native, you would think he had it easier – he didn’t. To be honest, his EP, Son of Mercy wasn’t bad. But around that time, he again tried to crack the American market with a collaboration with Tinashe . He couldn’t get a look-in.
He bought himself out of his record deal and came back home. Again, it was sad. Like Wizkid, he hadn’t the requisite sonic pallete or rounded talent level to truly impact that soundscape.
Davido – How Long ft. Tinashe
He also hadn’t the musical quality to truly give the niche American market an experience. Like Wizkid, he tried to break by doing what Americans were doing without marking himself out. The music suffered and so did he – it was a learning curve.
But also like Wizkid, he had a role to play. But amidst the turmoil, Burna Boy did something important. He marked a song titled, ‘Link Up’ by Phyno. It didn’t truly make a mark till May 2017, but it was a moment that gave everybody a reminder of the range, versatility, dynamism and expansive sonic pallete of Burna Boy – at a level Wizkid and Davido lack.
Phyno – Link Up [Official Video] ft. Burnaboy, M.I
With that, he also displayed a unique dynamism of style and delivery at a level that most of his peers can’t even dream of. At the time, it made little sense to a lot of people, but the song was an important moment.
Afrobeats obsession slightly went down with white capitalists and label heads.